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In Wilbon's World

Pain Dwells for Isiah, Magic

It's 17 years and counting, but the story hits as hard as their feelings toward each other.

In a new book chronicling the careers of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Magic says that in the wake of his being diagnosed HIV positive in 1991, his onetime dear friend, Isiah Thomas, questioned his sexuality, which is one of the many reasons Thomas wasn't wanted on the 1992 Olympic Dream Team.

Thomas, talking to SI.com, which had obtained an advance copy of the book "When the Game Was Ours," said, "I'm really hurt and I really feel taken advantage of all these years. I'm totally blindsided by this. Every time I've seen Magic he has been friendly with me. We would go out to dinner in New York. I didn't know he felt this way."

What we've got here is a basketball cold case, a revisiting of probably the most awkward episode of consequence in American basketball history, involving some of the most famous men who ever played the game, the most significant team ever assembled and some pretty deep wounds that have never healed over all these years.

Thomas, the best small guard to ever play, wasn't selected to be on that team, which was controversial enough at the time but seems completely heinous now in the light of history. And while Thomas's exclusion was widely blamed on a longtime feud with Michael Jordan, Magic says in the book, "Isiah killed his own chances when it came to the Olympics. Nobody on that team wanted to play with him. Michael didn't want to play with him. Scottie wanted no part of him. Bird wasn't pushing for him. Karl Malone didn't want him. Who was saying, 'We need this guy?' Nobody."

All of that is undeniably true. I covered the Dream Team, the first team of professional basketball players to compete in the Olympics, from the time it began training camp in San Diego throughout its historic gold medal run in Barcelona in the summer of 1992. And while it wasn't discussed on-the-record, it was no secret that most of the players on the that team, which also included Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin and the only college player, Christian Laettner, didn't want to spend the summer with Thomas, the ring leader of the widely resented, two-time NBA Champion Bad Boy Pistons.

Thomas was left off the team even though his own coach, Chuck Daly, coached the Dream Team. So, this isn't exactly breaking new ground.

But hearing Magic talk of it openly all these years later, and of the breakup of their friendship in the years preceding has clearly hit a still-raw nerve in Thomas, who told SI.com, "I wish he would have had the courage to say this stuff to me face to face, as opposed to writing it in some damn book to sell and he can make money off it."

With lesser players, dredging up an issue more than four Summer Olympics ago would probably be treated with a shrug and "Who cares?" But Bird, Magic, Thomas and Jordan ushered in the era of college basketball we now know as March Madness and the Golden Era of the professional game, which truth be told, hasn't been as good since they all retired in the 1990s. The history of basketball cannot be written without much attention being devoted to Magic and Thomas, once the very best of friends.

They were so close in the early 1980s that Magic reserved a wing of his Bel Air mansion for Thomas's visits. Magic, when the Lakers left town for road trips, would even drop off his own car at the hotel where the Pistons would stay in Los Angeles for Thomas to use. They famously kissed on the cheek before some games.

But a confrontational NBA Finals series between the Lakers and Pistons in 1988, in which the two got into it a bit, set the friendship back. And in November 1991, after Magic announced he was HIV positive, rumors flew that Thomas wondered about Magic's lifestyle in Los Angeles. Thomas reminded SI.com that his own brother was HIV positive and several years ago died of AIDS, and that he was not homophobic, saying that Magic "acted and responded off some really bad information he got."

This all happened just as the Dream Team was being announced, in the summer and fall of 1991.Throw into the mix a controversy several years earlier where Thomas supposedly agreed with Dennis Rodman that if Bird was black he'd be seen as "just another player" and Thomas was looked at by some great players, including Magic, as someone who couldn't be trusted.

The book's co-author, Jackie MacMullan, says that Magic was rather sad as he spoke of his feelings for the first time for public consumption. Several people, including reporters, have at times talked of trying to get Magic and Thomas together to just sit and talk out what they'd clearly never addressed with each other. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm one of them. I've written about Magic since our days in college in the late 1970s but have become friends with him through our work for ABC/ESPN and, frankly, have come to admire him even more in his second life as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. With all that he's accomplished, the episode with Thomas has always saddened him.
Is it possible Thomas didn't know how Magic felt all these years?

Absolutely. Magic is the most cordial public figure imaginable but he's as proud as he is approachable and it's no surprise that he and Thomas, just as proud and much more protective, said a lot to each other but never talked about what happened. I've zero doubt that both feel very deeply every word they've conveyed, Magic in this book with Bird and Thomas to SI.com.

Thomas, over almost all those years, has come off as the villain, some of it his own doing and some of it due to his unpopularity in most media circles. If public perception is going to do the casting, Magic would be undefeated in any row with Thomas ... or anybody else. Some of that has been unfair; I wrote apologetically nearly eight years ago in The Washington Post about columns critical of Thomas I wish I could temper.

But that doesn't change the most hurtful part of all this, discussed publicly or not, for Thomas.

He wasn't on the Dream Team and should have been.

That said, my take is that several players on that team, including Jordan and Bird, would have taken a pass had Thomas been invited to play. Was Thomas, as irritating to them as he was a great player, responsible for the way some of the others felt? Yes. Should he have been on the team? Yes.

Sadly, the person in that era who routinely facilitated relationships was Magic Johnson. And with Magic, hurt as he now says he was in the book, unwilling to orchestrate it, there was nobody who could connect Thomas to the group.

As great as that team's global and historical impact is, Thomas's absence is now a glaring omission, and the Magic-Thomas sidebar is something that is still causing an awful lot of pain to two of the most important figures in basketball's history. That it couldn't be resolved then and still apparently cannot be reconciled now is an ending neither of them should accept.

By

Michael Wilbon

 |  October 23, 2009; 12:45 PM ET  |  Category:  NBA Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Wilbon - how can you say Thomas is the "best small guard to ever play?" Did you forget about AI? I like Thomas as probably the best small point guard. But pound for pound AI is probably the best player ever.

Posted by: IMOIMO | October 29, 2009 6:26 PM
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This indeed is a issue that should have been dealt with by either Magic or Isaiah man to man. To me one of the most dangerous ailments a person can have is the inability to forgive. In life we have all made mistakes and done things that we later on regretted doing. But when you can truly ask somebody to forgive you for something that you done, even if they do not accept it you are able to start your own healing process. The lack of forgiveness on man's part is unacceptable. The man upstairs is faithful in forgiving us.Yet if we cannot forgive how can we expect to be forgiven by the man upstairs. Man has to be able to surrender their pride. Yet there are people from all walks of life that can't give someone the gift of forgiveness. No book or interview should have more importance than loving your fellow man. I hope that either Magic or Isaiah can put this to rest by being the bigger man like Mike Wilbon suggested. There is enough beefing in our communities. If those who are role models to our children cannot set the example of righting the wrong. Then what does that say to our youth of today.

Posted by: raystitt810 | October 27, 2009 2:11 PM
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You must remember that at the time Magic announced he was HIV positive most people thought there was only one way you could get it. That usually came to mind immediately upon hearing of someone testing positive. So, that was likely how Isiaih was thinking. We know more about it now. Also, it's so shameful that two seemingly very intelligent men who were closer than brothers couldn't be up front with one another.

Posted by: aliben1 | October 26, 2009 8:54 PM
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Was Isiah one of the 12 best players in the NBA in 1992? Sure. But that doesn't mean he should have been on the Dream Team. Teams win when members subordinate their individual goals to the goals of the team. There were real doubts about Isiah's ability to do so, and this doesn't change that. Actions have consequences; Isiah won a couple of titles but alienated his peers, and he has to live with that. More to the point, if by adding the league's 6th best player you also cost it its 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 8th best, you're not improving it. It would have been Isiah's team, not the Dream Team. What is a team profited if it shall gain Isiah and lose its own soul?

Posted by: drrico | October 26, 2009 9:11 AM
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I grew up with in central Michigan in the ‘70s when Magic played basketball in east Lansing. Though I was cut from the JV the year his basketball team steamrolled us on their way to the state championship in ’77, I cheered when he signed with the Lakers after that season. I followed his career with interest after I enlisted in the Navy, and one of my younger brothers followed me into the Navy after the Lakers won the championship in ’82. My brother got assigned in San Diego so he could be close to Magic’s Lakers and I followed him to CA after my commissioning at Annapolis in ’86, getting assigned to a ship in Long Beach. Meanwhile, our youngest brother, still at home, became a huge Pistons fan, because of the promise brought to the team by Isaiah Thomas. My kid brother’s favorite possession was a signed statue of #11, driving with a basketball.

While on deployment from his San Diego homeport, my brother got sick and was later discharged from the Navy due to kidney failure. He stayed in San Diego to receive care from the VA medical community. After his condition worsened with heart complications, he sought a kidney donor to save his life. I was found to be a perfect match so after my ship returned to Long Beach from deployment, the Navy granted me leave so I could give him a kidney at UCSD Medical Center. The arrangement was simple since I was nearby and I received convalescent leave from the Navy after the surgery. My brother made a full recovery and the entire family was able to celebrate after the Pistons won it all in ’90.

I can’t say how important it was for us to be near each other when my brother got sick. It was also important for us to be able to celebrate life together in southern California during our military service. Mr. Wilbon hit it on the head when he writes that reconciliation is important to Magic and Isaiah. Life is precious.

Posted by: ivanlegrand | October 24, 2009 4:02 PM
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I grew up admiring Magic while attending high school in Saginaw Michigan back in the '70s. Though I was cut from the JV team, I cheered his team after they steamrolled us on their way to the state championship in '77. After he signed with the Lakers, I followed his career with interest after I enlisted in the Navy. Magic inspired me and my brother, who followed me into the Navy, to seek assignments in southern CA after I got commissioned at Annapolis. Meanwhile, we both cheered Isaiah Thomas who represented our beloved Pistons. Our little brother, still at home, was Isaiah's biggest fan and his favorite possession was a small statue of #11.

Meanwhile, my Navy brother became sick with kidney failure and was discharged from the Navy. After his condition worsened and he began to experience heart problems, he sought a kidney donor to save his life. I was found to be a perfect match. Since I was already stationed in Long Beach, it was easy for me to go to the UCSD Medical Center and donate a kidney. My brother made a full recovery and the entire family celebrated when the Pistons finally won it all in '90.

Had we not been near each other when my brother got sick, his outcome might have been a lot different. Relationships are too important to forI believe Mr. Wilbon hit it on the head when he writes that Magic and Zeke need to make up.

Posted by: ivanlegrand | October 24, 2009 3:19 PM
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"As great as that team's global and historical impact is, Thomas's absence is now a glaring omission."

No one really care but Wilbon. They certianly didn't miss him.

Magic and Thomas were great players. But let's not make them out to be heros. Magic had extra martial affairs he admitted to. Before that he slept with enough skanks he contracted HIV.

Thomas, well lets's see, sexual harassment suit he lost, CBA disaster, Knicks disaster, Pacers disaster, Raptors disaster, drug overdose in which he tried to cover it up by throwing his daughter under the bus.


Posted by: bal503 | October 24, 2009 2:21 PM
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Is it really all that serious that they are no longer friends? people grow in & out of relationships, big deal. look at wilbon & how he's changed. He was one of the original FAB FIVE haters, cracking on their long shorts, thuggish appearance & saying those knuckleheads should just be quiet & stick to playing. now he's the guy who blames S. Taylor for his own death & supports Rush Limbaugh-please--even Isaiah would call WILBON an idiot

Posted by: amberlisa | October 24, 2009 8:05 AM
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Isiah should question Magic, fliping on the election, johnny come lately, but the KILLER IS.....RENT a CENTER $3,000 for $ 500.00 TV , $5,000 for washer dryer, what sane BROTHER of elite significant,would sell out POOR people.... Rent a Center ruins live, scares people, rapes poor,Kills futures everyday, ..business man punk ass Magic Johnson will sell you out.

Posted by: jimmypsf | October 24, 2009 6:24 AM
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Isiah was THE reason I became interested in the NBA. To young people in metro Detroit in the 80s he was a very trusted figure. His behavior in New York really shocked a lot of people like myself who were not part of the general dislike of him.

SO, as sad and difficult as it is, I have to tend to agree with the commenter above that he has little credibility now. OR, if it really is true he was completely blindsided by this then it really reveals his lack of emotional intelligence, and perhaps other aspects of practical intelligence. Which would certainly help explain his breathtakingly appalling performance in New York. (None of which is to say he was not a genius on the court. Without him those early years in the cavernous Pontiac Silverdome would have been bordering on the absurd.)

Posted by: jake177 | October 24, 2009 3:11 AM
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In all frankness, I truly agree with Isiah Thomas on this one. I believe Magic did have "homosexual tendencies", during his playing days. The NBA had to protect there "favorite son" so they are keeping it quiet. MAGIC just needs to tell the truth and apologize to ISIAH!

Posted by: etreadwe1 | October 23, 2009 4:14 PM
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Should Thomas have been on the Dream Team? Absolutely. History may wonder why one the best players of his time was missing. Those of us old enough to remember his slash and burn approach to basketball, were never surprised he was not a member of the team.

And now, having watched him take down the CBA and New York Knicks among other things, he has no credibility in anything he says. Including that he is shocked and hurt by Magic’s comments.

Posted by: m8bmclaugh | October 23, 2009 3:11 PM
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